Have Democrats Found Another Manchin in West Virginia?

Though for the last several weeks, Democratic hopes of retaining Sen. Jay Rockefeller's seat in 2014 have looked bleak, it seems party operatives may have finally found their unicorn in West Virginia: a wealthy, pro-coal, pro-business Democrat in the style of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. Attorney Nick Preservati has spoken with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee about running for the seat, in conversations that the committee found "encouraging," according to a source with knowledge of the discussions.

"I can tell you that we are — I'm seriously considering it. Still looking at all the options. Very soon we'll put out more," Preservati said in a brief phone interview on Wednesday afternoon. Preservati said that he had talked with "a lot of people" about pursuing a bid.

Preservati could be an answer to Democrats' prayers. While Republicans seem to have already coalesced around Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, several potential Democratic contenders have indicated that they will take a pass, including former interim Sen. Carte Goodwin, former Gov. Gaston Caperton and Rep. Nick Rahall. Though Rahall hasn't expressly ruled out a bid, he sounds increasingly likely to run for reelection instead and few state Democrats expect him to run for the Senate seat.

Preservati and his family have long been involved in the coal mining industry in the southern part of the state, potentially disarming a potent line of attack for Republicans. Coal is a major industry in the state and the issue has been used to hurt Democratic candidates in recent cycles. In fact, NRSC executive director Rob Collins indicated on the day that Rockefeller announced his retirement that Republicans would try to make it an issue again, saying, "Voters next year will have a clear choice between a Democrat who will be a loyal vote for President Obama and Harry Reid as they try to kill West Virginia's coal industry and bankrupt our country with reckless government spending, versus a Republican who will serve as an effective check-and-balance on their liberal agenda and work to get our country's economy back on track."

"I'm not sure there's much difference between Shelley's position on coal and Nick Preservati's position and Joe Manchin's position," former state Democratic Party chairman Nick Casey said.

Though the young attorney has never held public office before, Preservati has long been involved in state politics and worked to help Manchin get elected in 2010, according to Casey. He also has significant personal wealth, which could bolster his campaign coffers and help him make up for his lack of statewide name recognition, though Casey said that his family name is "well-known in a positive way" in the southern part of the state because of the Preservatis' ties to the coal industry. Casey said that he was confident Preservati would be a strong fundraiser, adding that national Democrats and outside groups are sure to aid to his efforts.

Regardless of who runs, the state won't be an easy hold for Democrats. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the state's presidential vote by 27 percentage points last year and two of three West Virginia House members are Republicans. But Manchin proved in 2010 that there's still room for a moderate, pro-coal Democrat in the Mountain State and the party seems to think they've found that in Preservati.

Democratic attorney Ralph Baxter has also indicated his interest in the race and has met recently with several members of the state legislature and Caperton about a potential bid, Casey said. But Baxter does have some baggage: He's lived in San Francisco, where he is the CEO of an international law firm, for the much of his adult life.

But, Casey says, it's not all downside. About 10 years ago, Baxter encouraged the firm to put an office in Wheeling, where it now employs about hundreds of West Virginians. "It's insourcing in West Virginia," Casey said.